The oldest inhabitants of India’s financial capital Mumbai are members of a community that gives its women rights and privileges at par with men. The equality, empowerment and financial independence of Koli women reflects in their personalities – the confidence in their speech, the gold jewellery and flowers in hair and their bargaining skills while negotiating fish sale with a haggling customer.
José Gerson da Cunha, whose book ‘Origin of Mumbai’ was published in the year 1900, describes the Maximum City as ‘the desolate islet of the Mumbai Koli fishermen’.
A thousand years later, the Koli community remains an integral part of Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture. The men go fishing and women sell the catch in the fish market, signifying equal division of labour.
A Koli woman, also called Kolin, is the source of economic stability for her family. Her day starts early with procuring fishes from the sea shore. She then heads to the market where she interacts as freely with men as with women.
Until about a decade back, Koli women would invest their earnings into buying gold ornaments as a means of saving money. Now, most have opened bank accounts but a Kolin can even today be identified from a distance by the big bindi on her forehead, green bangles and chunky gold jewellery.
The nine-yard saree draped in Kaashtha style (tucked at the back) has, however, made way for the regular saree but hasn’t diminished the independence of women in a community where the birth of girls is celebrated as much as the birth of boys.
The women procure, sort, grade and sell fishes across markets in Mumbai. The fish selling license is passed on from mother to daughter or mother-in-law to daughter-in-law like a heirloom.